Brooklin, Canada -- An investigation has revealed that the U.S. supplier of sushi to more than 6,000 restaurants is associated with a Japanese company that sells millions of tins of whale meat.
Despite a global ban on killing whales, Japan's Kyokuyo, a multinational seafood conglomerate, sells between 10 and 20 million cans of whale meat a year, according to an Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report released Tuesday.
"Kyokuyo is breaking international laws," said Alan Thornton, president of EIA, an environmental group based in the United States and Britain.
"Since the 1930s, Kyokuyo has been profiting from the deaths of an estimated 130,000 great whales," Thornton told IPS.
There has been a global ban on whaling since 1986. However, the Japanese claim the 1,000 or more whales they hunt each year in the Antarctic Ocean are for scientific research. Whale meat is found in leading Japanese supermarkets, and Kyokuyo is perhaps the leading distributor, he says.
"To be clear, whale meat is not being sold in the U.S.," said Kitty Block, director of Treaty Law, Oceans, and Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society International (HSI).
"What we want is to make sure no U.S. company is involved in any way with killing whales," Block said in an interview.
Kyokuyo recently partnered with True World Foods of New Jersey, a leading seafood and sushi distributor with 280 million dollars in annual sales, to market frozen sushi under the brand name "Polar Seas Frozen Sushi". The product is slated to hit grocery stores here as early as this summer.
Block and other activists are asking grocery stores to "think twice before placing Polar Seas products on their shelves".
They may have been another reason, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
True World Foods is part of the True World Group founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, a controversial religious cult now run by his followers, the Tribune reported Monday. True World Foods CEO Takeshi Yashiro has been a member since at least 1980 when Rev. Moon directed followers to go into the seafood business to support the Church and end world hunger.
Moon's followers now build fleets of boats, run dozens of distribution centres and fishing processing operations and supply most U.S. sushi restaurants. A portion of True World's profits go to the Unification Church, Yashiro told the Tribune.
Neither True World Foods nor Kyokuyo have responded to requests from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), EIA and HSI to end their association with whale products, says Patrick Ramage, IFAW's Global Whale Campaign Manager.
U.S. citizens from all income groups and political backgrounds have a high level of concern about whales, according to Ramage.
A recent survey of 1,000 U.S. voters found that 69 percent would boycott seafood restaurants known to use suppliers involved with Japanese whaling companies, Ramage said in a teleconference.
"There is very strong and consistent support for the ban on whaling," he noted.
Despite international condemnation and standing virtually alone on whaling, Japanese government-financed whalers spent the last few months hunting for whales in the Southern Ocean. Dogged by anti-whaling groups like IFAW and Greenpeace, the whaling factory ship the Nisshin Maru experienced a damaging fire which greatly shortened this year's hunt.
Before the Nisshin Maru could return to Japan, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) completed its study of Japan's 18 years of so-called whale research in the Southern Ocean, and stated that little new had been learned.
"Japan's support for whaling has little to do with a demand for consuming whale meat," said Thornton.
Most Japanese don't like it and there are an estimated 4,600 tonnes of whale meat in storage. Meanwhile the Japanese government is trying to push whale burgers, he says.
"This more about Japan's Fisheries Ministry insisting on unfettered access to global marine resources," said Ramage.
Japan has spent millions of yen buying support from other countries that sit on the IWC to try to overturn the ban on commercial whaling, he said.
Whale watching is a huge and fast-growing industry worldwide, including in Japan. And there is growing scientific evidence that the great whales are of fundamental importance in the marine food web. Their depletion -- just 20,000 humpback whales remain when there may have been 1.5 million before commercial hunting -- has had significant impacts on the oceans, marine scientists believe.
Unfortunately, whales became endangered before science could begin to determine their role. Despite the 20-year ban on hunting, most whale populations are not recovering and it may be take another 50 to 100 years before they do, according to experts like Bruce Mate, director of the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Programme.
Public pressure has been effective in persuading other Japanese companies to pull out of the whaling business, notes the Humane Society's Block. She hopes that such pressure will push True World Foods to ask Kyokuyo to stop selling whale products.
And more pressure is coming Japan's way from non-governmental organisations and governments, notably the United States, at the upcoming IWC meeting in Alaska this May, says Ramage.
"Everyone wants the hunting of whales to end," he said.